Interviews in Student Affairs
Sonja Ardoin tells you how to prepare and what to expect.
A previous essay discussed how to identify good openings in student affairs.
Let’s pretend you have located an amazing job, decoded the description, and sent in all the required application materials. On the basis of your fantastic résumé and well-written cover letter that aligned your experiences and skills to the job description, you have now landed an interview. Congratulations! First things ﬁrst in the interview stage: You will need to reflect and do your homework (those do not end with graduate school, sorry!).
Sell transferable skills. Reﬂecting on your transferable skills inside and outside of your formal job(s) is an important preparation method for interviews. This means getting out of your functional area box to consider how overarching skills can be sold to employers — experience in tasks such as supervising, advising, strategic planning, budget management, event planning and execution, crisis management, assessment and data interpretation, presenting and facilitating, collaboration and partnership, social justice and diversity, and so on. Theoretically, you use these skills in every functional area. The question is whether you can market your experiences and skills to an employer in a functional area different from the one(s) in which you have worked in the past. Can you? If not, you need to think critically and holistically to consider how you may be able to assure a future employer that your transferable skills matter and will be useful in a new context.
This is particularly true if you are trying to switch functional areas. For example, if your current (and former) roles were within the area of residence life and you hope to find a new role in the student union or student center, it will be key to show the employer how your facility management role with managing a residence hall and supervising resident assistants translates into an ability to oversee union spaces and work with student and community organizations. Or, if you want to switch from fraternity and sorority life to accountability/ conduct/judicial, it would be important to showcase how your on-call rotation, crisis management, and conduct-hearing experiences in fraternity and sorority life have given you a foundation to work with the conduct/judicial area. In short, make it clear to the employer that even if you do not have direct experience in the functional area, you do have transferable skills that are precisely applicable to the new role.
Do your homework. Employers want to see that you are interested more in their job rather than in just any job. To show attentiveness, you have to do your homework. Yes, this is what it sounds like. You need to spend quite a bit of time learning about the institution, the division, the functional area, and the location. You should read websites, the local newspaper, the student newspaper, and so on. Talk to people you know who attended or worked at the institution. Remember that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you, and you need to assess if the campus and community culture will suit you. And, if nothing else, analyze any materials that the employers provide prior to the interview. If they give you a list of people with whom you will be interviewing, look them up. If they tell you where you will be dining during the interview, check out the venue and the menu. But please do not wait for them to provide you with materials. It is your responsibility to find information and use it in your interview responses and in your interview questions to the employer. Be prepared. Be informed. This “test” matters more than any you took in graduate school.
Do your homework on yourself. Although that may sound weird, what I am talking about is reflecting on your skills and experiences and considering how you would answer interview questions that you may face.
Prepare for phone and Skype interviews. When you obtain a phone or Skype interview, you know you have made it into the smaller pool of candidates who the employer believes have the qualifications to do the job, at least based on paper. The first interview is a chance for the employer to determine if there is validity behind the words on your résumé and cover letter. It is also an opportunity for the employer to gauge if your personality could ﬁt into the office and institutional culture. In my opinion, this is the most difficult component of the job search process. I think this because if the choice is a phone interview, it lacks key components of communication such as eye contact and body language, and if the employer goes with Skype, it creates potential issues with technology and the weird situation where you need to look at the camera on your computer to appear to be looking ahead or up, which means you really are not looking at any of the interviewers and, thus, still miss all the nonverbal communication aspects.
Regardless of the limitations, this first interview carries a lot of weight in the job search process. It is from this pool of candidates that employers will choose their ﬁnal two to four candidates. So, you need to represent yourself well and make the best impression possible. Suggestions for enabling that include ﬁnding a quiet location to hold the call that has a strong phone or Internet connection, managing your time (do not spend more than five minutes on one question), and crafting insightful questions to ask the interview committee. After the call, follow up with a thank-you email the same day to acknowledge your conversation and the time the interview committee took to learn more about you.Gear up for campus interviews. If you are one of the two to four people whom the institution has chosen to invite for an in-person, campus interview, you need to gear up for a one to three-day marathon interview and plan to answer similar questions for lots of different people. Schedules vary by position and institution, but here is a sample of what a campus interview schedule could include:
Student Activities PositionCandidate: ABC
Department of Student Activities, State UniversityThursday, May 14–Saturday, May 16
Thursday, May 14
4:55 p.m. Flight arrives5:00–6:00 p.m. Check in to hotel; free time
6:00–8:00 p.m. Dinner at local establishment
Friday, May 15
8:00–8:45 a.m. Breakfast at local establishment
8:45–9:00 a.m. Travel to Student Union
9:00-10 a.m. Search committee interview, Student Union Room A
10:00–11:00 a.m. Student panel interview, Student Union Room A11:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. Ofﬁce and campus tour
12:00–12:30 p.m. Benefits information12:30–1:45 p.m. Lunch at local establishment
1:45–2:00 p.m. Break2:00–3:00 p.m. Presentation that is open to campus, Student Union Room C
3:00-4:00 p.m. Peer colleagues panel interview, Student Union Room B4:00–5:00 p.m. Supervisors interview, Student Union Room B
5:00–6:00 p.m. Travel to dinner and brief city tour6:00–7:30 p.m. Dinner at local establishment
7:30–7:45 p.m. Travel to hotelSaturday, May 16
9:30 a.m. Check out of hotel
11:00 a.m. Flight departs
See? It is a marathon. The reason for the extensive nature of the on-campus interview is to allow the employers and the candidate (i.e., you) to determine ﬁt. They already think you are qualified for the job because they invited you to campus and are spending a chunk of money to bring you there (and they should be paying for the entirety of your trip!). The purpose of this level of interview is to figure out if you are a solid ﬁt with the office and campus culture. Similarly, the on-campus interview provides you with the chance to get a feel for the job, your colleagues, the campus culture, and the community to decide if it would suit your needs and wants -- if it is a ﬁt from your perspective!
Along with showcasing your skills and experiences to multiple parties in this interview, your other goal is to show who you are. Let your personality shine through! Laugh. Make (appropriate) jokes. Talk about books you have read recently or TV shows and movies that you enjoy. As I mentioned before, they already think you meet the qualifications, so now they are trying to determine who you are more so than what you can do.
The critical aspect of this interview from your perspective is to pay attention to details and ask good, informed, and (sometimes) pointed questions. This is when you watch how colleagues interact with one another and with students. This is when you pay close attention to nonverbal communication when people answer your questions to determine if they are speaking freely or “spinning” their answers. This is when you inquire about salary and benefits if the employer has yet to inform you of those. This is when you, tactfully, bring up any recent media attention the institution received. Again, you are interviewing the employers as much as they are interviewing you! After the interview, follow up with a thank-you email the same day to everyone you met (yes, this takes time and effort), and send an actual thank -you card to both your point of contact and your potential supervisor.
Sonja Ardoin is director of student leadership and engagement at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She is the author of The Strategic Guide to Shaping Your Student Affairs Career (Stylus), from which this essay is adapted.
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